Three years ago, Topher Wurts took his son Kirby, who was 10 at the time, to a "run the bases" day at a ballpark in Pennsylvania. The event was billed as kid-friendly, and Wurts hoped it would provide bonding time for Kirby, who has autism, and his grandparents.
The event was organized, Wurts said, in such a way that the kids had to leave and re-enter the stadium through a confusing route. Wurts asked the attendants if there was another way, but he was rebuffed.
For Kirby, the process proved overwhelming. He got separated from his family and wandered off. After a frantic search, he was found trailing another couple several blocks away.
For parents of autistic children, even mundane family outings can turn perilous. Some children with the condition have special dietary requirements; others might panic when surrounded by bright lights or booming noises. With Kirby, Wurts found himself regularly searching for fenced-in playgrounds or barbers who understood autistic children.
To make finding such venues easier, Wurts has launched a Kickstarter to raise money for Autism Village, an app that will allow people to find, rate, and review places based on their level of "autism-friendliness."
"Just like with Yelp and Trip Advisor, it will tell you places near you or within a radius, or you can search by category," Wurts told me. "If you’re in an Applebee's that has a waitress who really gets it, you can enter that into the app and say 'ask for Kim, she was great with my kid.'"
The "autism-friendliness" aspect could mean anything from making pancakes available gluten-free (a common dietary issue among autistic children) to, "Do they have staff that’s trained and aware? Do they know that these kids aren't just misbehaving?" Wurts explained.
If Wurts reaches his goal, he plans to release the app on iOS; he'll make an Android version if he surpasses it. He also wants to create "badges" for businesses that prove especially deft at interacting with autistic children, and to offer trainings that would help establishments get better at doing so. The Applebee's example, he notes, is real: One couple told Wurts a waitress at the restaurant saved the day by quickly replacing a hamburger that their autistic daughter had deemed "broken"—just as a meltdown was coming on.
The problem? The "broken" hamburger had been cut in half.
"That was a happy ending," Wurts said. "That would be a place to go."